By Nick McCarvel | March 22, 2019, 12:45 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue compete in the Ice Dance Rhythm Dance at 2019 ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 22, 2019 in Saitama, Japan.

 

With second to eighth place separated by a mere 3.5 points after the rhythm dance at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, the top two U.S. teams look to leapfrog onto the podium in the free dance Saturday afternoon in Saitama, Japan.

2018 world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are fourth at 83.09, just 0.01 points behind Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia, while two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates are sixth with an 82.32.

It’s a career-best score for both American teams.

Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have a safe lead in first (88.42), while Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov are second (83.94).

Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker currently sit in ninth.

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Knowing they’ll have to fight for a podium position in the free, Hubbell said she and Donohue were satisfied with what they put out on the ice.

"Our goal coming into worlds was to tighten up our technical,” she said. “We've been losing points all season on levels missed here and there, especially with Tango Romantica. Today we accomplished our goal, skating very 'in the moment,’ precise. That's exactly the feeling we had last year at worlds when we won a medal. That's how we felt, just calm and connected."

The reigning and two-time U.S. champions are looking to bounce back after a disappointing finish at Four Continents last month, when, as the favorites, they finished fourth when called for a mistake on a lift in their free dance.

While Donohue joked with reporters before worlds in regards to the call, he said it had also served for a catalyst ahead of the season’s biggest event: “It helped accelerate us into a mental place where we are really focused on our technique and trusting in our strengths as a team in what we do naturally instead of trying to force things, he said. “We’re drawing in all of that work and training we have put in and are falling back and relying on it.”

Chock/Bates are skating in their seventh consecutive worlds together, though the last 12 months has been vastly challenging for the 2015 U.S. champions, Chock having undergone ankle surgery in April and the team not competing until January.

Their tango rhythm dance was dramatic from the start, and finished with an intricate rotational lift, Chock in Bates’ arms. It’s a success for them even to be in Saitama, having missed the entire Grand Prix Series.

“We were kind of expecting for it to take a little bit longer to get back on top,” Chock told TeamUSA.org pre-worlds. “We’re really quite proud of how we competed in the past three competitions and… we just feel really prepared. Our coaches are incredible to get us ready after taking so much time off for my recovery from surgery. And then being back to competing and feeling so polished and prepared so quickly. We’re very happy.”

They echoed those feelings post-rhythm dance Friday afternoon.

“To put out a great performance is really satisfying,” Chock told the ISU in a video interview. 

Bates added: “This season has been unique, strange. We took the feedback (after Four Continents) and we feel like our programs are at their best they’ve been all season. Hopefully we can bring that for the free.” 

Hawayek/Baker, the U.S. bronze medalists this year, train alongside Hubbell/Donohue and Chock/Bates in Montreal, with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. In ninth, they will skate in the second-to-last group with Chock/Bates in the free, while Hubbell/Donohue are in the final group.

The U.S. has landed on the podium 12 out of the last 14 years at worlds, dating back to 2005. Their most recent miss was in 2014, when Chock/Bates were the highest of the American teams, in fifth.